Álvaro Uribe committed a grave error three years ago when he told a military audience that some Colombian human-rights groups are "spokespeople for terrorism."
The word "terrorism" should not be used lightly. It refers to individuals or groups who deliberately kill – or conspire to kill – civilians for political reasons. States must use all legal means at their disposal to stop anybody who fits that description.
But states must also respect and protect those who do not. Critics and political adversaries, however relentless or unfair their arguments may seem to be, have a critical role to play in any democracy. Tarring them as "terrorists" threatens to become a pretext for eliminating that role.
Álvaro Uribe has deservedly faced strong criticism for his use of the "T" word to describe non-violent adversaries. Now Bolivia’s Evo Morales deserves similar criticism.
A few days ago Morales, in Havana for the meeting of non-aligned nations, told an interviewer that Bolivia’s media are a main obstacle to his proposed reforms because they practice "journalistic terrorism." AFP reports:
"The resistance comes from the media," Morales indicated, denouncing "a journalistic dictatorship, a journalistic terrorism" that seeks "to satanize this process of changes" and "to confuse the Bolivian people and the whole world."
This is not the first time that Morales has used this term, though it is the first time since he was inaugurated that he has used it to describe the entire media.
Morales is correct that much of Bolivia’s mainstream media is tied to wealthy economic interests and political blocs that oppose his reforms, and that its reporting often favors his political adversaries. The president is free to criticize their biases, their accuracy and their credibility at every opportunity.
But to use the word "terrorism" is to move beyond politics. It carries an implicit threat of violence: a state’s response to terrorism is very different from its response to legal political opposition. The Cochabamba daily Los Tiempos put it well in an editorial yesterday: "The President would do well to reflect on his inappropriate accusation, so that this does not imply a threat to the freedoms of expression and information, as in times of dictatorship."